Spotlight: Collaborative learning center opens in Mendoza

Author: Dennis Brown


The traditional college classroom remains essential to learning. But at a time when teaching techniques are rapidly changing, there must be more than the standard lectern, desks and chairs, black and white boards, and even latest and greatest technology. New ways of learning demand new learning environments that encourage collaboration, group problem-solving and other interactive activities.p. The result at Notre Dame is the new Giovanini Commons for Collaborative Learning, a $3-million, 8,500-square-foot facility that opened in mid-August on the lower level of the Naimoli wing of the Mendoza College of Business.p. Taking the lead on creating a new kind space for a new kind of learning was Carolyn Woo, Martin J. Gillen Dean of Business. In conversations through the years with students, alumni, faculty, recruiters and educators, Woo repeatedly heard of the need for space designed for collaborative learning. After investigating work by a variety of people in the field, Dean Woo and her colleagues proposed a plan to create an open, flexible learning space that can accommodate groups ranging in size from two to 75.p. “A traditional lecture room pivots around and converges on the instructor as the ‘master’ of the learning experience,” Woo says. “This assumes that knowledge is concentrated on the instructor, and signals that authority for the design of a course and the interpretation of knowledge is held only by the instructor. An open environment breaks from the centralized mode to a decentralized model for exchange and interpretation. The openness of the space also invites students to take part in?and even share’responsibility for the design of the learning experience.”p. While allowing that the traditional classroom remains vital, Woo adds that an open environment is better suited to experiential learning activities such as role-playing, negotiation exercises and simulation, and it provokes in students conversation, curiosity and imagination.p. “The open environment,” she says, “enables us to explicitly incorporate the social processes in learning and moves us in the direction of active learning, development of student leadership for learning, experimentation, and the use of mixed instructional modes.”p. Giovanini Commons features three learning areas that can seat up to 75 students at large, comfortable chairs and desks, all of which include power outlets and ports for laptops. The furnishings are on wheels for easy maneuverability, and the desks are curved so that they can be arranged individually, in half-circles, circles, and as long (wavy) conference tables. Moveable wall systems add to the reconfiguration possibilities.p. Throughout the commons, there are smaller learning clusters with work tables and larger lounge chairs. A combination of incandescent and florescent lights provides multiple lighting options. Acoustic panels help absorb sound. Technological features include a wireless network, 93 network connections and sophisticated audio-visual systems.p. In addition to an open and flexible design, much attention was paid to the look and feel of the space. The desks and chairs are made of cherry wood, the walls are vivid shades of orange, lavender and green, and one of the three learning centers is oval, a shape that is said to be more conducive to learning.p. “The aesthetics are important,” according to Woo, “because they stimulate different senses for creative processes, evoke liveliness, provide creative thinking, and invite dialogues.”p. The first users of Notre Dame’s newest facility were Executive MBA students, who gave it positive reviews.p. “I really like the set-up of this space,” said Arne Pedersen, manager of strategic sourcing for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Indianapolis. “It’s interactive, not only from the professor-student perspective, but also for student-to-student. It’s very conducive to different learning styles.” Cassie Kline, program coordinator for Executive Education, was most impressed by the flexibility.p. “The ability to move desks and chairs around so easily is really great,” she said. “It’s a simple thing, but it’s so helpful to be able to reconfigure a room for a new activity in just 10 minutes.”p. Individual courses are not assigned to Giovanini Commons, but rather the space can be reserved by faculty from any of Notre Dame’s colleges for use on a short-term basis during a semester. In time, the University also plans to make it available to corporate groups in need of a space designed specifically for collaborative or problem-solving gatherings.p. The commons was underwritten with a gift from alumnus Joseph Giovanini and his wife, Jane. A 1954 graduate, Mr. Giovanini serves on the advisory council of the Mendoza College of Business. The couple live in Teton Village, Wyo. VOA Architects of Chicago designed the facility and Larson-Danielson Construction from La Porte, Ind., was the general contractor on the project.

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